Along the major highways across the country, madressahs, mosques and other big
and small structures of various religious denominations are a common sight.
From Karachi to Torkham, Islamabad to Gilgit and Peshawar to Kotri, the spread
of religious institutions is a visible indication of the religious ethos in the
country. But the architectural symmetry of madressahs, mosques and religious
centres? also points to the presence of religious forces that are at work to
create a kind of national cohesion.
main beneficiary of religious institutionalisation is a major segment of the
lower income groups. In Punjab, this phenomenon has already significantly
transformed social structures, and a similar transformation is also underway in
Sindh. Now, not unlike the rest of the country, such structures are
increasingly sprouting up along the major highways and inter-district roads in
Balochistan. But, the case of Balochistan is a more complex one in many
urbanisation in parts of Balochistan and a growing middle class can be counted
as primary factors behind growing religiosity in the province. The Baloch
overseas workers in Middle Eastern countries, as well as Omani and Iranian
influences in the coastal and bordering regions, have also factored in to
change the socio-economic fabric of the area. Encompassing all this is the
state's larger religion-oriented national cohesion project, which defines
Pakistan's ideological foundation in religious terms and places religious identity
above all other identities including ethnic. The historical processes of
Islamicisation of the state and society palpably indicate that.
nationalist Baloch scholar, Naseer Dashti, in one of his publications,
acknowledges that Baloch society has undergone profound change during the last
few decades. The traditional social and tribal structures have changed,
nomadism has vanished and, with the development of numerous townships
throughout Balochistan, a middle class has emerged on the Baloch socio-political
horizon. With this change in society, claims the scholar, the essence of
nationalist leadership is also transforming; instead of tribal elders, the
middle class is increasingly taking up the leadership role.
traditional religious structures - which were once responsible only for
performing religious and social rituals and reflected the conservative side of
society - are becoming a genuine socio-political force.
clerics, sub-nationalist in character, have gotten a sense of empowerment because
of the increasing religious influence and religious institutions in
Balochistan; they lacked this empowerment within the traditional social
structures. Hafiz Hussain Ahmed, the renowned Jamiat Ulema Islam-Fazlur Rehman
(JUI-F) leader in the province, asserts that the establishment has its
favourites within the religious parties but it still relies more on sardars because they prove more
helpful in counteracting separatist tendencies among the Baloch than the
religious leaders do.
divisions among different religious brands are also visible in their
geographical distribution. The banned sectarian and militant organisations
politically associate themselves with pro-establishment political streams. Such
groups have influence mainly in Quetta, Mastung, Kalat, Naseerabad, Jhal Magsi
and the Pashtun belt of the province. In Gwadar, Turbat, Panjgur, Washuk,
Chaghi, Kharan, Kech, Nushki and Awaran districts, nationalist tendencies are
dominant among the clergy, who have to deal with other influences, including
from nationalist political parties and insurgent groups of both left-wing
leaning and religious-nationalist character. Pakistani Baloch insurgent groups
such as the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) and the Balochistan Liberation
Army (BLA) are mainly active here and are seen as having largely a leftist or
secular ideological character. The Iranian Baloch insurgent groups, mainly
Jaishul Adl, are also present in bordering areas of some of these districts and
deemed as religious-nationalist owing to their use of a religious ethos to
influence their fellow Baloch in Iran's Sistan-Baluchestan province.
issue is not as simple as is sometimes understood," says Hafeez Jamali, an
anthropologist who is currently heading a CPEC project-related section in the
Balochistan government. He points out that central Balochistan has remained
relatively more religious since the times of the Khanate of Kalat as the Khans
always patronised religious institutions. Then, during the Afghan-Soviet war,
the central parts of Balochistan were relatively more affected by the expansion
of religious institutions. "However the eastern and western parts of
Balochistan traditionally remained less inclined towards religion," he says. "Even when the number of madressahs and mosques is increasing in these parts,
the pace of religious influences [gaining traction] is slower [there] compared
to the central parts of the province."
The madressah factor
Zubair Ahmed, a madressah teacher in Quetta who is a local JUI-F leader says, "Education, both formal and religious, is changing Baloch society." He claims
that it is the burgeoning of madressahs that not only contributes to an
increase in the literacy rate in the province but that it is also helping to
create a new lower middle class, which is more conscious about its political
rights. Some journalists and madressah teachers from different parts of the
province share that Baloch madressah graduates have strong ethnonationalist
sentiments and are against the tribal and sardari system
in the province.
powerful tribal or sardari system
deemed itself the custodian of the Baloch socio-cultural and political ethos.
The traditional religious structures were somewhat entrenched within the sardari system and the two rarely
challenged each other before this trend of increasing religiosity.
the impact of this new wave of thought can be measured by counting the number
of religious centres one passes on the highways in Balochistan, the picture is
stark. There are more than 10,000 small and big madressahs in Balochistan,
which roughly translates into availability of ?one madressah for every 1,200 to
1,300 people in the province. In Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces, by
contrast, there is one madressah for about 45,000 to 50,000, and 10,000 to
12,000 inhabitants, respectively.
one cannot claim that the madressah is a new centre for revolutionary thoughts
and ideas. The madressahs in Balochistan played a key role in the formation of
the Taliban and not only provided human resource to their militias but also
provided ideological and political support.
madressah institution has also fanned the flames of sectarian violence in the
province. Yet, the presence of a distinct nationalistic character among
madressah students in Balochistan can be attributed to the overall political
environment of the province, the dominance of the Baloch nationalist discourse
in mainstream education, and an element of anger against the state's polices to
reverse the militant chapter in the country.
is a sense of humiliation that the state has abandoned them, which could be a
reason for their anger," says Qari Saifullah, the principal at Markaz-e-Islami
Panjgur, a prominent seminary of the area belonging to the Jamaat-e-Islami.
However, Shahzada Zulfiqar, a Quetta-based senior journalist and political
analyst, doubts such claims. According to him, most of the madressahs students
in the province belong to the Pashtun community. "These [nationalist]
tendencies [among the madressah graduates] are not going to benefit nationalist
politics and the Baloch insurgent movement because they will prefer to support
their religious political and sectarian organisations," he says.
the cause may be, the Baloch nationalist insurgent movement - which is largely
left-wing leaning and seeks revolutionary inspiration from global leftist
movements or from its own historical background - is now facing resistance from
the emerging religious-nationalist forces.
nationalism exist in Balochistan?
Pakistan security personnel inspect the site of a
suicide attack in Dalbandin carried out by Baloch insurgents targeting Chinese
engineers on August 2018 | AFP
institutions of religious education may have not completely eroded the
nationalist ethos of the Baloch but they have at least provided them a sense of
connectivity with the broader religious communities in Pakistan. The Tableeghi
Jamaat is one of the instrumental organisations connecting the Baloch with the
wider national, religious and social discourses in the country. Banned
terrorist groups such as the Jamaatud Daawa and Al-Rehmat Trust were also
encouraged to expand their networks in the province, especially in the
insurgency-infested areas. "If these organisations are agents of national
cohesion, they may take a few more years to dilute the nationalist tendencies
and this cannot happen without the expansion of the middle class," says
Quetta-based civil society activist Ali Baba Taj.
the conflicting views, this fundamental question still remains unanswered. A
review of the Iran-focused militant group Jaishul Adl can help to understand
separatists and militants have engaged in regular cross-border raids against
Iran which has made the Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchestan a flashpoint
since long. In October 2018, 12 Iranian security personnel were abducted near
a village 150 kilometres southeast of Zahedan, the capital of
Sistan-Baluchestan province. The group that claimed responsibility of the
abduction was the anti-Iran Sunni Muslim militant group which calls itself
Jaishul Adl (JA), or the Army of Justice. Operating primarily in the Iranian
province, it receives support from local Baloch tribes in Pakistan where it
also operates from.
Adl can be classified as a Baloch religious-nationalist militant group, which
was formed soon after the arrest and execution of Abdul Malik Regi, the leader
of the Sunni extremist organisation Jundallah. Jaishul Adl claims to be
fighting for the rights of the Baloch and Sunnis in Iran. It had demanded of
the government equal rights for both the Baloch and Sunnis in Iran, among other
things, in exchange of freeing the Iranian guards.
a demand reflected that, unlike Jundallah, the group's struggle is for the
rights of the Baloch-dominated districts in Iran and not necessarily for the
independence of these areas. However, on-the-ground reports reflect a different
reality. Local accounts from Panjgur and Nushki claim that JA has separatist
tendencies and, like the Pakistani Baloch groups BLA and BLF, it advocates for
a 'greater Balochistan' comprising Baloch regions within Pakistan, Iran and
is the reason that has drawn the Baloch youth from Pakistan's bordering towns
to join the group. Quetta-based journalist Akber Notezai feels that "Unemployment could be one of the factors for Pakistani Baloch youth to join
the Jaishul Adl." Mainly those youth who subscribe to different Sunni sectarian
and religious organisations comprise its ranks. JA's core leadership, however,
is mainly Iranian Baloch. In this context, it has become a transnational religio-separatist
group of the region.
Jaishul Adl vs BRAS
is often engaged in skirmishes with left-leaning Pakistani Baloch insurgent
groups. The Baloch Raaji Ajoi Sangar (BRAS) is an alliance including the BLA,
the BLF and the Balochistan Republican Guards (BRG) and often clashes with JA
in armed confrontation in the areas they share alongside the Pakistan-Iran
BLA and the BLF are beneficiaries of Iran's lenient attitude towards them and,
in turn, BRAS insurgents believe that Jaishul Adl enjoys Pakistan's inattention
to its activities as well as support from some Middle Eastern countries. They
also claim that JA has been undermining the nationalist insurgency. However,
the presence of Pakistani Baloch youth in the folds of JA indicates that the issue
Pakistani insurgents did not have a close association with Iran, the breakaway
faction of the Jundullah group was tolerated by Pakistani Baloch insurgents.
But now the situation is different. A few blogs maintained by BRAS supporters
reflect that the debate among Pakistani Baloch insurgents to form an alliance
with their Iranian counterparts carries on, though with little success.
few among hardliner Baloch nationalists in Pakistan, who take pride in the
traditionally left-leaning and secular roots of the Baloch nationalist
movement, consider JA an illegitimate entity to lead the Baloch. They assert,
instead, that the group is dividing the force of the insurgents while giving a
religious colour to the resistance movement. According to them, the Iranian
regime is, in fact, not against the Sunnis because it allows Sunni mosques and
madressahs to function, that Sunni books are published in Iran, and Sunnis have
representation in the Iranian parliament. They also point to Maulana Abdul Hameed,
the head of the Sunni Council in Iranian Balochestan.
argue that the Iranian regime is, in fact, against ethnic minorities including
Baloch, Kurds and Arabs. They assert that the Iranian regime has not set up any
Baloch cultural centre in Sistan and there is a ban on the publication of
Balochi-language books. A secular Baloch cannot contest elections in Iran. This
is a popular view among the hardliners, but many experts underscore that Baloch
nationalism in Iran has become increasingly religious in nature, and JA is one
of the reactions.
the groups in the BRAS' fold have a critical view of Iran and advocate for a
greater Balochistan, logistical support from Iran has also made them dependent
on the country. This has given Iran clout over these insurgent groups and it is
using them against anti-Iran groups such as JA. According to local accounts,
families of BRAS commanders have been given protection and refuge by the
Iranian security forces and, in return, they attack JA hideouts inside Pakistan
and provide information about them to Iran.
The Zikri factor
Seminaries have been accused of providing human resource
to the Taliban movement | AFP
Zikri issue is another manifestation of the complex religious landscape of
Turbat, in Kech district, Zikris have prayed for centuries at Koh-e-Murad.
Every year, on the 27th of Ramazan, members of the small Muslim sect hold a
mystical gathering at the shrine. Mainly based in the Makran region, the Zikris
also inhabit in large numbers the Mashkay and Gresha areas of Khuzdar district,
the entire Awaran district and many parts of Lasbela district. Many historians
believe that Zikris were the native Baloch. Some claim they came from Fatimid
Egypt and, travelling through Iran, they arrived on the Makran coast centuries
ago. However, Zikris have a strong affiliation with Balochistan and have
from the Arabic dikr - meaning 'pronouncement' or 'remembrance' - the term
Zikri denotes the prayers which Zikris perform in place of the daily Muslim
prayers. The exact number of Zikris is unknown but it is estimated at around
600,000 to 700,000 , with more than 100,000 living in Karachi, and a
considerable number present in interior Sindh as well. The predominantly Baloch
community lived peacefully side by side with the
'Namazi Baloch' (Sunni Baloch)
until religious persecution reared its ugly head.
the government allowed Salafi clerics to settle in the Makran region, it
triggered a discourse of hatred against the Zikris. Later, Deobandi clerics
from Karachi and sectarian groups from Punjab also joined the campaign against
them. In 1978, Ziaul Haq himself visited the region and had a long consultation
with the local religious leaders, which has been documented by Maulana Abdul
Haq in his booklet Zikri Masla. He claims that the 'ulema' demanded that Zikris
be declared non-Muslim and Zia promised in the meeting that he would send the
case to a superior court to resolve the issue permanently. Zia encouraged the
clerics to sensitise people about the issue.
mullahs also tried to incite other Muslims in Makran and Balochistan against
the Zikris in order to force them to the margins of society. A religious group
Majlis Tahafuz Khatm-e-Nabuwwat, in collaboration with the Sipah-e-Sahaba,
organised an annual congregation in Turbat at the same time as the Zikris' annual gathering at Koh-e-Murad near the city. These religious groups invited
thousands of their followers from across Pakistan to stop the Zikris from
performing their rituals.
the last few years, the local administration has stopped the religious groups
from intervening in the Zikris' rituals, but this action comes too late. A wide
sectarian rift has already been created among the Baloch. Zikris are still the
target of terrorist groups and religious zealots. In 2014, six Zikris were shot
dead in a Zikr khana in Awaran district. In the same year, Zikri passengers of
a bus were attacked in Khuzdar district of Balochistan. Seven of them were
injured. In 2016, a Zikri spiritual leader was killed in Kech.
Zikris claim that they are targeted because of their political views - they
have strong nationalist inclinations and they support nationalist parties in
the province. Maulana Abdul Haq, in his booklet, also endorsed that the Zikris' secular and nationalist credentials were a cause for concern for the
government. In retaliation, many young Zikris have joined insurgent groups,
mainly the BLA and the BLF.
see the Zikris' inclusion in Baloch insurgent groups as one of the impediments
to developing a working relationship between these groups and the Iranian Sunni
religio-nationalist groups - despite the fact that they all have some common
nationalist tendencies among them. Abdul Haq Hashmi, the Jamaat-i-Islami
provincial head, endorses this view. He points out that the anger among Zikri
youth was already intense and when the current phase of insurgency began, many
of them instantly joined in. "The Zikri factor could be one of the obstacles in
the way of any probabilities of cooperation between nationalist and religious
insurgent groups," he observes. However, the number of Zikris among insurgent
groups is significant. Most of the important commanders of the BLF and the BLA
belong to the sect.
the crisis of identity comes the modern-day problem of housing and settlement.
After fighting nationalist insurgency, religious extremism and sectarianism,
the Zikri sect now faces encroachment by mega development projects. Journalist
Notezai says that many Zikris fear that the CPEC route will cause massive
displacement for them as many community members reside in the areas the CPEC
passes through - starting from Gwadar to Hoshab-East of Turbat (M8) on one side
and Gwadar to Lasbela, as well as in Awaran. M8 connects Turbat to Hoshab,
where one can find a significant population of Zikris. Areas with a strong
presence of Zikris include Gwadar and surrounding areas, Turbat city, Kissak,
Kikkin, Shahrak, Shapuk, Sammi, Karki, Hoshab and some parts of Dander and
Many Baloch insurgent groups are said to be fighting for
a 'greater Balochistan'
markets of eastern and western Balochistan are full of Iranian goods and
Iranian petrol and diesel. Goods from Iran have occupied virtually the whole
market not only in Balochistan but also in bordering towns of Sindh and Punjab. "Bordering towns cannot survive without trade with Iran and this is used for
political leverage," says Dr Ishaque Baloch, central vice president of the
National Party (NP). In the absence of religious influence in Balochistan, Iran
mainly depends on economic incentives as a tool. Many Baloch in the border
regions have dual nationality of both Iran and Pakistan, and others have entry
permits as they are in the business of trading petrol and grocery items.
infiltrating the market via trade with the Pakistani Baloch is easy, the
religion schema is more complex for Iran as the Baloch on both sides belong to
the Sunni school of thought. Iran made attempts to introduce Shia Islam in the
bordering regions of Pakistan but the campaign was abandoned because of fear of
persecution of the Shia population by Sunni hardliners and violent groups.
Journalist Zulfiqar points to the presence of pro-Iran religious scholars sent
on preaching missions in the Baloch areas but says they have had little
success. Allama Akber Zahidi, a prominent religious scholar from Quetta, says
that the Makran region has zero Shia presence but Khuzdar and adjoining areas
are home to non-Baloch Shia families. After sectarian tensions and incidents of
target killings, these families were evacuated and brought back to Quetta; many
settled later in Punjab.
the other hand, Sunni sectarian groups and clerics are also confronting Iranian
influences, which deepen the sectarian divide in the province. Quetta, Kalat
and Mastung districts particularly remain sensitive because of the presence of
sectarian and global jihadist terrorist groups in these areas. So far, these
groups do not have strong operational linkages with anti-Iran groups such as JA
but, if they indulge in any formal alliance, the sectarian divide in the
province could intensify. Though the Baloch-dominated districts have a
different sectarian complexion, Quetta and the districts bordering Sindh may get
affected by such a Shia-Sunni divide.
Baloch nationalist leaders are still reluctant to admit the fact that religious
institutions are reshaping Baloch society. "The Baloch are born secular and
their women are more independent and confident, working in and outside their
houses," says Dr Baloch. But when his attention is drawn towards the Jamiat
Ulema-e-Islam's usually securing good number of seats to the provincial and
federal legislatures from Balochistan, Dr Baloch asserts the JUI's rise was
only made possible by the Islamicisation process of the 1980s. Otherwise, he
maintains, the clergy could not change Baloch society to any great extent.
religion is reshaping the socio-political ethos of the province and the state
is also using religion as a tool to glue disparate groups together. "The
establishment feels easy using religious actors and it feels it has mastered
this art," says Zulfiqar explaining why the establishment does not instead
engage with other aggrieved segments of society. But the rest of Pakistan has
already experienced how the clergy, once empowered through patronage, can start
dictating powerful elites after becoming strong.
process of religious cohesion is slow and complicated. The ultimate outcome of
this process is anybody's guess. Whether or not it will dilute the nationalist
tendencies among Baloch remains to be seen. But as has been proven time and
again, an ideological dose cannot be an alternative to a cohesive social
contract and an equitable distribution of resources.